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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 March, 2005, 14:53 GMT
US to pay up for stolen Jewish loot
At the end of World War II, US troops stopped a Nazi train in Austria carrying gold, art and other goods stolen from Hungarian Jews. The items were not returned to their owners - some even ended up in US officers' homes.

Now, as Daniel Lak reports, a court in Florida is finalising a US government settlement worth about $25m (13m).


David Mermelstein has vivid memories of what the Nazis and Hungarian police stole from his family in their town in the Carpathian mountains, then a part of Hungary.

Children in Auschwitz concentration camp, Poland, at the end of World War II
Many Jews who survived the Holocaust returned to looted homes
"Fine china, lace, a bag of gold and silver jewellery, my sister's dowry, the candle sticks and wine cups that we used for religious festivals and all of our money," says 74-year-old Mr Mermelstein, sitting in a cafe in south-west Miami.

Pausing for a moment, he adds: "But mostly they stole my family. Of all of us, five brothers and sisters, my father, my mother, my grandmother, I'm on the only one who survived. I'll never get compensation for that."

It was 1944 and Mr Mermelstein was 17 years old. Hitler's regime was losing the war.

It's not about the material loss, it's not about the money - it's about a great country, the US, admitting it did something wrong
Sam Dubbin, plaintiffs' lawyer
Yet the Nazis were determined to complete the genocide of Jews in Europe, including Hungary's Jewish community of 800,000.

Mr Mermelstein and hundreds of thousands of other Hungarian Jews were deported to death camps, such as Auschwitz.

Through various twists of fate, young David Mermelstein survived, and made his way to America.

China and silverware

There he raised his own family and tried to put the horrors of the Holocaust behind him.

But in 1999, President Bill Clinton's high-level Commission on Holocaust Assets issued a report on what happened to Jewish assets looted by the Nazis.

THE 'GOLD TRAIN' CASE
Items on train included gold, jewellery, art, Oriental rugs, china, glassware, silver and religious items
Goods worth up to $200m
Contents wrongly classified as enemy property and requisitioned by US Army
Believed to be 30,000-50,000 surviving victims
Class-action suit brought in Miami by Hungarian Holocaust survivors in 2001
Mr Mermelstein was horrified by what he read.

"It was there in black and white," he says.

The report revealed long secret information about the US military and the fate of a trainload of Jewish possessions intercepted by American soldiers in 1945.

It said that some 24 boxcars full of goods stolen from Hungarian Jews by the Nazis had been appropriated by the US army with some senior officers even taking the finest china and silverware for themselves.

"It's not about the material loss, it's not about the money," says lawyer Sam Dubbin, who led the legal team which sued the US government on behalf of the Hungarian survivors.

"It's about history, it's about closure, it's about a great country - the US - acknowledging that it did something wrong, even as it liberated Europe from the Nazis."

Initial denials

The case has not been without controversy.

Some scholars have argued that the story of the "gold train" is false and the possessions of Hungarian Jews were stolen by their own government just after the war.

This was certainly the position of the American Department of Justice which opposed the survivors' attempts at compensation from the moment the suit was filed, at first denying the charges, then saying that the events were too long ago for a contemporary court to consider. Judge Patricia Seitz ruled against this argument.

"It's typical of governments to refuse to acknowledge that they've done anything wrong," says Jay Weaver, legal correspondent for the Miami Herald newspaper.

A woman looks for the name of her father on the leaves of a metallic tree to commemorate the Holocaust victims in Budapest
A Budapest memorial for 600,000 Hungarian Holocaust victims
"They don't want to set a precedent, they don't want to open the floodgates, so they stall and raise points of law. When the judge saw this was happening, she nudged the two sides towards a mediated settlement.

"Otherwise it could have gone on for years and many of the survivors might have died."

Many of those involved in the case are still in Hungary, and most of the $25m in compensation paid by the government will go to them.

None is to be given to those survivors who migrated to America, Canada or Australia.

Back in Florida, 73-year-old Alex Moscovic - a survivor and plaintiff in this case - welcomes the settlement of the lawsuit.

But he wants something more.

"Never mind money," he says.

"I don't need any. This is about righting a historic wrong. We in the United States have admitted that slavery was wrong, that some wars were wrong. We said 'yes, we did it, we shouldn't have'.

"That's what we need to do here. I love this country because it saved me after the war and it gave me a wonderful life. Now I'd like it to be generous one more time and apologise to us."


SEE ALSO:
US in dock over Nazi loot
08 May 01 |  Europe
Hungary marks ghetto liberation
18 Jan 05 |  Europe


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